Meditations from the Waste Stream

Last weekend, I had the amazing experience of being inside the first Rooting Symposium event, a springtime brunch at Ken Dunn‘s impressive City Farm. Dunn also runs the Resource Center, whose aim is to reclaim underused resources of all kinds, and much of the food was sourced from Chicago’s waste stream. This is of interest to me because, since giving up my university teaching position, moving to Chicago and becoming a graduate student, I’ve extended my urban foraging activities into what I consider their alternate form, dumpster diving.

To be more specific, I’ve learned a lot about what is euphemistically referred to as “food insecurity.” This term refers less to the fact that a person is going hungry as to the fact that she may not know where her next meal is coming from. Since the recession hit in 2008, it’s a situation more and more Americans, including middle-class Americans, are experiencing. As detailed on the USDA’s website, there are two levels of food insecurity including “low,” which means that the quality or desirability of one’s food has been compromised, and “very low,” which basically means that people in the household don’t have enough to eat. Interestingly, there are also two levels of food security: “high,” which means you have enough to eat, and “moderate,” which means that you are experiencing either anxiety about where your food is coming from or some food shortages. According to one report, in 2011, 17.9 million households, or nearly 15 percent of American families, were food insecure. My own dumpstering has been a direct reaction to my own level of food security, which I’d place at somewhere between moderate and low.

This has given me an interesting subject-position from which to make observations. I believe in buying organic (I used to insist on it), and am mostly-vegetarian for ethical reasons. I still shop, very selectively, at Whole Foods. (More on that later.) Having celiac disease and the good fortune to live in Chicago, I also shop at a range of ethnic markets, including Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mexican grocery stores. Though I’d rather not, these days I make the most trips to my grocery store for what Whole Foods likes to term “conventional” produce. I also frequent the bins behind many of these same stores. This range of consumer experiences has, suffice it to say, taught me a lot.

Because of the undeniable social stigma that surrounds dumpstering, I’d like to preface my discussion with a few notes and disclaimers. First, I consider dumpster diving, like urban foraging, to be a highly creative, adaptive, and environmentally-sustainable practice. As Dunn notes, tapping into the waste stream is another way of using resources from the environment. Second, forget your stereotypes of dumpster-divers as smelly, mentally ill homeless people. I’m not the only one who has embraced this solution. One fellow forager I ran into was an old woman, clearly a middle-class immigrant; one has to ask what has led someone’s grandmother to the trash bin behind her local grocery store. Third, it is legal in the City of Chicago to take what other people are throwing away, as long as you don’t trespass in the process. (Indeed, the absurdity of “stealing” trash is something to meditate on.) Fourth, I’ve applied for LINK benefits twice and been rejected both times, although my income qualifies me and my federal work-study is supposed to guarantee this benefit. (Beyond those rejections, there is an ethical issue of a person who is only “moderately” food insecure taking advantage of resources meant for the very poor, which is why I haven’t pursued this option more aggressively.) Finally, this isn’t a how-to essay, though I am happy to share what I know with the truly interested. (Like mushroom-hunters, good dumpster-divers don’t divulge their favorite spots to just anyone.) All that said, what I would like to do is share a bit of what I’ve come to realize about the waste stream and the food supply in the United States.

Here’s the main, and most shocking thing I’ve learned: the food in your neighborhood dumpster is probably in better shape than the food in your fridge. It might even be better than some of the food still on the shelf at the store. In Chicago, I frequently find perfectly good, crispy, organic produce and scrumptiously ripe fruit. Just today, I ate a small organic peach that tasted as if it had been picked right off the tree. What was wrong with it? Nothing, except that it was little and had a slight soft spot. A few weeks ago I recovered about fifteen organic Fuji apples. Each was perfectly ripe and harbored perhaps one tiny, fingernail-sized bruise.

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The last two organic Fugi apples, photographed before I finally gave in and ate them.

Another time, I recovered a pound of slightly dried-out, organic medjool dates, the big kind with the slightly chocolatey flavor. Beyond organic produce, I’ve recovered ripe, sweet cantaloupe, beautiful mangoes, pounds of unblemished grapes, boxes of greens, enough broccoli and carrots to freeze up “California mix,” and even yogurt and tofu. Ok, the tofu had been frozen and was a little grainy. But much of what I find is astonishingly intact.

As Lars Eigner points out in his well-known essay “On Dumpster Diving,” all this raises the question pertinent to every dumpster-diver: why is this item being discarded? The sad truth is that it has much to do with the American food supply. As consumers, we’ve all been conditioned to want rows of perfectly-formed, familiar fruits and vegetables at the grocery store. According to Dunn, at Whole Foods, produce is pulled the day before its expiration date to ensure that customers always have an unblemished, eye-candy array of brightly colored fruits and vegetables. In addition, says Dunn, entire boxes of produce are routinely thrown out because of a single soft fruit that might (but hasn’t) affected the rest. Sadly, these boxes not only represent food that could be going to feed the hungry; the process of growing, harvesting, and long-distance shipping has already consumed massive amounts of petroleum by the time they’re intercepted and discarded at the wholesale level.

I have to admit, I’m as guilty as the next person of wanting that array of eye candy in the produce aisle. Going to Whole Foods, I’ve realized, isn’t just about what I can buy there; it’s about how much I enjoy that consumer experience, that visually stunning presentation. The fact that we expect familiarity and perfection from our fruits and vegetables has much to do, of course, with the use of pesticides, the genetic engineering of foods, and mono-cropping that compromises biodiversity. These issues tie directly to large-scale factory farming. Interestingly, many of the folks I’ve interviewed for this Symposium page, including Adam Graffunder, Dave Snyder, and Nancy Phillips, have identified factory farms as the number one food issue we face today. Factory farming dramatically affects small-scale farmers as well as consumers. And it’s integrally tied to the food we all eat, every day.

From the start of their growing process, fruits and vegetables are engineered to stand up to long-distance shipping while looking pretty. They’re treated with petroleum-based pesticides and harvested before they’re fully ripe. We are all familiar with that mushy red delicious apple, or the perfect red tomato that tastes like cardboard. The importance consumers attach to appearance over taste is best demonstrated by an anecdote from my best friend in Michigan, who runs her own organic farm and has a stand at the upscale Ann Arbor farmer’s market. She reports that even her well-educated, upper-middle-class customers often don’t recognize something as “exotic” as yellow tomatoes.

“But what would I do with a yellow tomato?” one of her customers once famously asked.

“Well,” she offered, “the same thing you’d do with a red one! They’re great in salads and lower in acid.”

“Oh,” the woman replied, “but I don’t know if my husband would eat a yellow tomato.”

Such insistence on conventional-looking fruits and vegetables is directly related to the limited number of varieties available at most grocery stores in the US. That perfect red tomato? Recent genetic research reveals that it’s actually the slightly green shoulders of many heirloom varieties that makes them intense, distinctive flavors. Michael Pollan has written forcefully about this issue of decreasing biodiversity as it pertains to apples in his groundbreaking book, The Botany of Desire.

By way of example, let’s consider another fruit I’ve found in astonishing amounts behind my local grocery store. Worldwide, the market is also dominated by a single variety of banana, the Cavendish. It may come as something of a surprise to learn that bananas (like carrots!) come in colors including red, salmon, orange, yellow, green and black, and range in flavor tones from tart apple to raspberry to strawberry, from intensely sweet and soft to firm and starchy. They also range in size from footlong to pinky-sized. Why then, the focus on the bland 7-inch yellow Cavendish? The answer: it can be farmed by Chiquita on a massive scale, then picked and shipped long distances while still green.

Despite being America’s most-consumed and least expensive fruit, bananas are neither local nor sustainable. As Dan Koppel points out in The New York Times, bananas cost about half as much as apples, although most apples are fresher and regionally-available. Sadly, the well-loved banana is also the direct product of cultural imperialism, labor exploitation, and massive oil consumption through long-range shipping. Moreover, all Cavendish bananas are genetically identical, meaning that not only is our eating experience of bananas severely restricted; the world’s banana supply is precariously susceptible to being wiped out by an encroaching fungal disease. In other words, this kind of large-scale monoculture not only decreases biodiversity, but impoverishes our eating experiences and contributes to global warming.

The fact that I often find loads of Cavendish bananas being thrown away–not even donated to soup kitchens or used for compost–should give us all pause. As noted above, we live in a time of decreasing food security and increasing economic disparity. Worldwide, the cost of food has been rising since 2008, and may continue to do so into 2020. This phenomenon is directly linked to the rising cost of fuel and to drought that may be a result of global climate change. These increases have affected the US less than other countries due largely to our reliance on highly processed foods. In other words, many of us face increasing economic pressure to eat food that’s both cheaper and less healthy; bags of Cheetos rather than those (wasted) fruits and vegetables.

Ironically, dumpstering has also made me ask questions about what stores, businesses, and other food establishments will sell as top-quality in order to ensure their own bottom lines. One other thing I’ve learned is that the food in the dumpster is not only better than the produce in most people’s crisper drawers; it was often on the shelf at the store about five minutes before. The situation is, to say the least, absurd. I’ve come to realize that not only the discounted fruit at my local produce market is a breath away from the trash bin, but also that the 2/$1 oranges on special at 7-11 are often drawn from a box that was clearly destined to be discarded and perhaps even obtained at no cost. These days, I frequently look at a $1 apple and reflect I know where to find one that looks better and is organic, for free.

In fact, dumpstering has dramatically enhanced my own level of food security. I cook and freeze the vegetables, and dry the fruit in the dehydrator I bought for $20 on Craigslist. I see this as embracing a classic American value: resourcefulness. I now have a huge supply of dried, non-sulphured fruit that my friends swear is more delicious than any they’ve bought. I have to agree. I also believe it’s important not to take more than I need (remember that old woman?) and to share what I find. When I find greens in large quantities, I cook them and invite friends for dinner; when I find lots of fruit, there’s fruit salad and applesauce for dessert. Of course, everything is well washed, though as someone who used to buy organic almost exclusively, I’m more concerned about pesticide residues on my food than about a bit of dirt from the bin. And no, neither I nor anyone I’ve known has ever gotten sick from dumpstered produce. When I do shop at Whole Foods, I’m able to buy small amounts of ethically-produced chicken. This is important to me. Dumpstering, in essence, allows me not to participate in I view as the unacceptable animal cruelty of large-scale meat production. Exploring the bins has also expanded my culinary repertoire. Because I am fortunate enough to live near a number of ethnic areas, I have discovered and learned to use vegetables and fruits, like okra and guavas, that I had only the dimmest idea about before.

In sum, the question is not one of whether such food can be good or healthy. Clearly, it can be and is. The deeper question is why such perfectly good food is being thrown away in a city suffering from poverty, recession, and food deserts–and in a world already suffering from global climate change. What if we, as consumers, demanded a range of foods available that were locally grown, produced, and distributed? We would need to embrace more diversity in our food supply, to be less wed to the idea that our food must look a certain way. We would have to accept some soft spots on our peaches, and would need to judge our food more on nutritional value, environmental impact, and taste than on appearance. But, after some initial resistance, such transitions should not be hard for many Americans. We are, after all, highly adaptable. The result would be, first and foremost, and enhanced range of eating experiences, and, perhaps, a greater sense of connection to the world around us. No doubt the would be less waste in the dumpster for folks like me. But I’m the first to admit that dumpstering is an imperfect and highly personal solution to the problem of food insecurity. What if we made a point of using only what we need and donating or composting what has been overproduced? The result might just be better food, a more connected sense of community, and greater environmental awareness. At the risk of being without bananas, I’d certainly like to find out.

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On Darkness, Silence and the Loss of Negative Space

As an artist, the idea of negative space is one of the most important concepts I’ve learned. For those unfamiliar with the term, negative space refers to blank areas in a composition. Although it’s counterintuitive, negative space is one of the most important elements of any work. Think of the white space behind words that allows them to be read, or the musical rests in a concerto draw attention to the specificity of the notes.

One doesn’t have to look far to see that the world around us is losing negative spaces. I mean this not only in terms of the disappearance of sparsely-populated landscapes or CNN-style visual cramming of our television and computer screens. We have lost, or are losing, many blanknesses that once gave our lives meaning and shape. Of these, consider two: darkness and silence.

It has now become a truism that our planet is suffering from light pollution. People once used the space of night to contemplate the heavens, to trace the shapes of constellations, make up myths, and share stories. Writing in The New Yorker, David Owen describes how light pollution not only impacts people but can decimate bird, insect, and sea turtle populations. These environmental effects demonstrate that light pollution is as “real,” and as potentially devastating, as other forms of pollution.

But it is not only excess of light that we need to consider: it is lack of darkness. Watching it get dark outside was, Owen writes, a common evening activity, a moment of calm contemplation. Today, ask someone what phase the moon is in and you’re liable to get a confused stare. One might ask how this loss of connection to spaces beyond ourselves has impacted our contemporary psyches. Divorced from larger cycles, how are we to understand ourselves, our place in a larger order, our impact (or lack of impact) on the world?

It is not only larger celestial cycles we are failing to connect with; it’s also the cycles inside our own bodies. According to historian Roger Ekirch, in the preindustrial night it was normal to go to sleep at dusk and waken, mid-night, for a few hours of quiet. During this time one might pray or meditate, talk or be intimate with one’s bedmate, study or interpret dreams. Such nighttime quiet wakefulness, called segmented sleep, is, Ekrich and others have argued, actually part of our natural human sleep cycle. In the centuries before the Industrial Revolution, night was a negative space giving shape and meaning to those quiet hours it surrounded. I can’t help but wonder how our experience of the world might be changed if such nighttime quiet were still part of our lives—if it were part of mine.

The collective loss of darkness affects not only our psyches but, like the species we are impacting, our biological processes. Recent research has linked ambient light at night to melatonin disruption that contributes to breast cancer and obesity. That’s right, sleeping with too much ambient light can make you fat. And nearly every urban environment contains an excess of ambient light. By way of example, my friend Toby Altman and I recently hosted a poetry reading meant to take place in complete darkness. We soon discovered that even in our quiet neighborhood, there was no escape from the light of the street outside. Although we eventually made do by pulling closed his curtains, there was still plenty of light in the room. Beyond shutting everyone in his bathroom or another windowless space, we realized that true darkness was going to be nearly impossible.

Beyond these very real health effects, we have little negative space inside our own nighttime minds. We all know that Americans don’t sleep enough; I personally could be a poster child for this cause. But try asking people about their dreams. Most will tell you they don’t remember any. This is, I submit, integrally related to the loss of nighttime experience. In contrast, I think of my time in the jungle of Ecuador. There, the Quicha people I stayed with went to bed early, rose at 4:00 a.m. and gathered around the fire to share and interpret their dreams. With the loss of darkness, it seems we may also be losing the free associative spaces inside our own minds.

All of this points to loss of another kind of negative space: quiet. I won’t even say silence. Just as the planet is filled with light, sound now pervades every corner. Like light pollution, noise pollution is as real as chemical pollution and has been linked to severe environmental impacts.  For example, a recent story on NPR described how sonar seriously impacts whales and other species that use echolocation to communicate and to orient themselves in space. To be more specific, according to Scientific American, “evidence shows that whales will swim hundreds of miles, rapidly change their depth (sometimes leading to bleeding from the eyes and ears), and even beach themselves to get away from the sounds of sonar.” Whales and other animals, it turns out, need the negative spaces of the ocean’s quiet to communicate, to navigate, and to be heard.

For humans, too, the negative spaces offered by quiet moments are hard to come by. We are not only surrounded by cacophony, but have been conditioned to prefer it. Many of my friends comment on my propensity to spend time at home with no radio, no music, just simple quiet. They freely admit to the need to fill the space with sound, of having no “tolerance” for quiet. Tolerance for quiet seems to me an odd concept, since biological evidence points to the taxing effects of constant loud noise. One roommate I had went so far as to imitate sounds in the environment–the ringing of the phone, for instance, or a single word from someone’s sentence–when she wasn’t talking, whistling, or passive playing (rather than watching) the television.

Yet it seems we are not really listening to the sounds we hear. Writing in The Journal Acoustic Ecology, Kendall Wrightson uses the term “soundscape” to describe the acoustic environment in which a listener finds herself. According to Wrightson, a soundscape may be “hi-fi” or crowded, or “lo-fi.” Lo-fi soundscapes include not only moments of silence, but, like the broadcast airwaves, also have available frequency bands in which different communications, human or animal, can take place. In contrast, “hi-fi” soundscapes are so crowded that communications overlap and sounds crowd each other out. In today’s hi-fi environment, Wrightson describes how many people are so bombarded by ambient noise that they cannot list as few as five specific sounds (not music) that they’ve heard throughout the day. As an exercise, he routinely asks his students to write a list of sounds they have heard, as well as those they like and do not. “Many,” writes Wrightson, “do not recall ‘consciously’ having heard any sounds during the day, and many do not complete the sound list even after fifteen minutes” (10). Rather than being an exploration, my roommate’s need to react mimetically seemed largely unconscious, a way of preventing silence rather than a way of exploring her environment.

Wrightson seems to confirm this view, pointing out that one strategy for coping with a high-noise environment is to block out the sound with music, what he calls “acoustic perfume.” I’m often struck by how many people on my daily commute use headphones to block out the train noise. Headphones are complicated. They give us the private space we so desperately need, but at the expense of connection with others and with our environments. Wrightson goes even further in his analysis: “The psychogical significance of sound used as a controlling force—as an offensive (weapon) or as a (defensive) barrier against the soundscape—” he writes, “is that the environment and the community become the enemy.”

Like the loss of darkness, loss of quiet not only alienates us, but affects us biologically. Research shows that chronic exposure to traffic and airport noise can lead to acute and chronic changes in the body’s stress hormones. While too much light can contribute to cancer and weight gain, too much noise can damage your heart. Chronic exposure to loud noise, like that from airports, may also disrupt our hormones and damage the quality of sleep, leading to an increased chance of heart disease, hypertension and myocardial infection. Although there is less research to support the hypothesis, there has also been scientific speculation that in pregnant women, noise exposure may lead to birth defects; in children, it may contribute to problems with learning and reading comprehension.

I wonder about this loss of negative spaces, and our apparent fear of darkness, of quiet. There is no space in our environments or, it seems, inside our heads. With no time for introspection or connection, we, like the marine animals we are affecting, are losing the ability to orient, to understand our own subject position relative to our environment. Wrightson writes that in preindustrial times, communities had distinct acoustic profiles “heard at a considerable distance, reinforcing a sense of space and position and maintaining a relationship with home.” I can’t help relate our loss of negative spaces not only to our loss of connection, but to the loss of attention, a topic I’ve written on previously. Indeed, what is attention but the capacity to hold, if only briefly, a mind filled with blank, receptive space? And what is orientation but a pause to take stock of the environment and assess one’s place within it?

Darkness and quiet bring us closer to our environment at every level. Without them, we lose connection to the stars, to diurnal cycles, to other species, to other humans. Instead, our experience becomes a jittery canvas of moment-to-moment stimuli. Graphic artists speak of “activating negative space,” by which they mean making sure that the curves and shapes around the blankness charge it with its own form of energy. Negative space does not “do nothing.” It allows rest for the eye, peace for the ear, renewal for the mind. Negative space renders what is around it comprehensible, and can allow us to understand more fully our complex and often overwhelming lives.

Silence and darkness can be viewed as two natural resources we are depleting. In doing so, we impact the planet, compromise our health, and destroy the internal spaces that allow us to imagine and create. Without the capacity to rest, dream, attend, connect, and reflect, how are we to understand or imagine our place in the world? So here’s a challenge: spend some time in darkness, if you can, or in silence. Or as near to them as you can get.

Blog Post: Why Celiac Disease Is A Political Issue

NFCA Celiac Central.org

NFCA Celiac Central.org

CeliActivism: Why Gluten Intolerance is a Political Issue

When people learn that I have celiac disease, their response is usually what can best be characterized as one of, well, horror. “Oh no! That’s terrible! What do you eat?” No bread, no pizza, no beer? How can a person survive?

Luckily, people are slightly more likely to have heard of gluten intolerance—or to know someone who has it—than they were even five years ago. Back then, people just used to look at me like I had six big, ugly heads. Despite improved awareness, though, I still don’t hear the a key aspect of gluten intolerance being discussed—not by celiacs, public health advocates, food activists, farmers, vegans, Whole Foods shoppers, or organic gardeners. It’s the fact that celiac disease is a profoundly political issue.

To explain why this is the case, I’d like to begin by thinking abou ta few, well, categories of the horror my revelation tends to produce. A few of the most common:

A)  Celiac disease? OMG! You are a freak of nature condemned to a life of donut-less misery.

B)  Wow, that’s too bad. I’m sure glad I don’t have that problem.

C)  Honestly, you are a hopeless neurotic. This gluten stuff is just another fad. (What? You’re also vegetarian? For ethical reasons? Come on! How picky can one person be?)

Other celiacs, will, I know, be familiar with this, er…. menu of reactions.

Because they all tie in with my larger point, I want to think about each of these responses in turn. First of all, there’s response A). I have to say in reply that gluten intolerance isn’t that bad. Really. It’s not as if I have a degenerative illness: all I have to do is avoid gluten-containing foods. In contrast to 30 or even 15 years ago, when a diagnosis of celiac disease condemned you to a life of pot roast, potatoes, and gluey rice pasta, it’s now possible to buy gluten-free goods of all kinds. Ok, I miss baklava. Barring that…I can get almost anything I want. Even bagels.

In fact, I eat very well. Despite the fact that all those gluten-free goodies are available, I mostly don’t eat them. They can be expensive and not that healthy.  For instance, many gluten-free foods contain a lot of fat to make them seem like replicas of gluten-containing foods. But when you eat fresh foods, and when you stop expecting your food to be exactly like the food you ate before, avoiding gluten is not that hard.

Why do people think gluten intolerance is so terrible? First, they’re used to processed convenience foods. They can’t imagine life without Pop Tarts, Cinnabon, and Lunchables. Second, they fail to realize that it’s largely the additives, and not the food itself, that are the main problem. Many people tell me they’re “avoiding gluten” by not eating bread. According to a recent consumer survey, gluten-avoiders now make up fully one third of the American public. I applaud their intentions, but, alas, not their level of attention.

Unfortunately, what most people who are attempting to avoid gluten miss is the component of food additives. Food starch modified, barley malt, and “natural flavors”—all of these ingredients can blindside people who think they’re going gluten-free. It’s amazing how often you have to read the label to make sure that food you thought was safe really is. By way of examples, here are a few of the gluten-containing processed foods most people don’t think twice about when they “avoid gluten”: Twizzlers (wheat flour), Rice Krispy Treats (barley malt), Campbell’s Tomato Soup (wheat flour?!), granola bars (oats), french fries (cross-contamination with those onion rings from the fryer), soy sauce (wheat flour), pre-shredded cheese (flour coating to keep it from sticking), and hot dogs (wheat-based filler). It’s not just about the bun, folks. But avoid processed foods—or at least read the label—and it’s pretty hard to get tripped up.

As a result of avoiding processed foods, my diet is my healthier than the average American’s, and my palate is much wider. I eat Thai, Indian, Middle Eastern, Japanese, and Vietnamese food with enthusiasm. Sure, they may serve bread, but these cultures and cuisines don’t rely on gluten as a key additive the way the typical American diet does. There are in fact a plethora of other grains out there, and these cuisines use them. In Kenya I had amazing bread made from cinnamon, cardamom, and steamed rice; in India, bread made from millet. Ethiopian cuisine uses teff, a tiny, nutty grain, to make the bread staple, injera. Even when I was in France, that bastion of yummy baked goods, I didn’t have much of a problem. I ate fresh potatoes, salad, and even a bite of pâté from a wild boar my friend’s father had hunted. The food was fresh. It was delicious. Far from feeling like I had missed out on wonderful eating experiences, I feel like I’ve had more of them. In this sense, gluten intolerance isn’t a disease. It’s an opportunity.

Response B)—”glad it’s not me!”—also deserves attention. The fact is, it might be. As a recent New York Times article points out, more people who aren’t necessarily celiacs are becoming aware that they may have gluten sensitivity. This could be due, in part, to the increasing presence of gluten in our food supply. Did you know that bread is now being produced using wheat strains that are genetically modified to contain more gluten? I didn’t. For goodness sakes, with a third of Americans avoiding gluten, why? Because gluten gives bread its springy texture and makes shipped bread last longer. Thanks a lot, GMO grains.

Not to sound the alarm bells, but I with reference to response B), I also find that people are woefully under-informed about the symptoms and prevalence of celiac disease. Consider the following statistics, from the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness website:

  • One in 133 people in the US has with celiac disease. That’s three million.
  • By a conservative estimate, 85% of people suffering from celiac disease aren’t diagnosed. And a typical diagnosis still takes 6-10 years.
  • Celiac disease doesn’t necessarily present in the form of gastrointestinal upset. It can show up as symptoms including dermatitis, chronic canker sores, stunted growth, mental confusion, and bone pain, to name a few. Common misdiagnoses include chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, failure to thrive, and rheumatoid arthritis.
  • It’s also possible not to have any noticeable digestive symptoms. This was the case with my sister-in-law, whose antibodies were off the charts when she finally got her test results.
  • Whether or not you’re symptomatic doesn’t matter. Celiac disease damages your intestine and leads health problems over time. It can even cause other food issues, such as lactose intolerance. Over time, celiacs become more and more malnourished and frail, which is why many aren’t diagnosed until they’re in their eighties.

All right, you say, maybe I’ll get tested. But a little bit of gluten won’t hurt. That Rice Krispy treat you mentioned doesn’t have much gluten…right?

This response is strongly tied to celiac-response C): Celiacs and our ilk are just being neurotic. I know it seems that way, but we have our reasons. Consider that in Canada and Europe, the federal safety level for gluten is twenty parts per million. Now imagine that you have one million M & Ms. Of those million, most are blue but twenty are red. It isn’t many. But you can’t tell which is which, because these M & Ms are very, very tiny. Could just a handful make you sick? Unfortunately—and I know this from experience—yes.

All these responses bring me to my point that celiac disease is not just a private dietary issue. Long ago feminism taught us that the personal is political, and that’s the case here too. Celiac disease is political because it entails close scrutiny of what’s in our food supply. Not just what, but why. Why on earth aren’t oats, a gluten-free grain, considered safe for celiacs? Because the fields where the oats are commercially grown and the industrial machinery used to process them are hopelessly contaminated with wheat flour. You won’t find this gluten on the list of ingredients, but if you’re a celiac, you know that a packet of Quaker oatmeal, or even the wrong corn chips, can seriously mess you up.

While we’re asking why all that gluten is there, let’s also ask why we don’t know about it. Manufacturers aren’t likely to volunteer this information if they don’t have to. And the American public is not trained to read food labels. Unless you’ve had to deal with a dietary problem, you are probably only dimly aware of the number and type of additives in the American food chain: extra sodium, food starch modified, food coloring, sulfites, high-fructose corn syrup—these unhealthy ingredients are only necessary for the production of food meant to be packaged, shipped, stored for long periods of time, and thoughtlessly consumed by a public that has been carefully primed to want them. In case you missed it, a recent exposé on the deliberate engineering of addictictive junk food recently appeared in the New York Times Magazine. I’ve often joked that if I had to make a bomb shelter, I’d construct it out of two indestructible substances on the planet—Cheez Whiz and Twinkies. Gross, right? But let’s face it—this food doesn’t spoil. It’s nearly indestructible because it’s dead.

The fact that we are unaware of what’s in our food goes even deeper, though. Many people are so divorced what they eat that they don’t understand what their food is. We don’t read labels; beyond this, we don’t understand how our food is made or what it’s made from. As a celiac, I’m astonished by the nunber of people who don’t understand that bread is made from wheat. (Astonishingly, so is pasta). A few weeks ago, I dined out at a well-known Chicago restaurant that prides itself on its use of fresh, organic ingredients. Although I told my server I’m gluten intolerant, she still offered me a beer list and, worse, my salad arrived with a big piece of bread in it. I didn’t want to be that person, (see response C), so I carefully removed the bread and ate the salad. Last week, a server at the Chicago Diner, a well-known vegan restaurant, served me a “gluten free” taco salad containing “chorizo” made from seitan. That’s concentrated wheat gluten. Again, not wanting to be that person, I waited until halfway through my salad to ask, just to make sure, what those tiny bits were. Remember those 20 parts per million? In spite of my best efforts, both of these salads made me sick for three days after I ate them.

With more and more people developing gluten sensitivity and recognizing gluten intolerance, we need to take our analysis beyond simple awareness, to the level of political activism. Call it celiactivism. As an alternative to the set of reactions I detailed above, I propose the following:

A) If you’re a celiac, or if you know a celiac, make people aware of it. Don’t accept the “freak of nature” reaction. Don’t shut up and eat the salad that’s going to make you sick. We can take our cue here from people who’ve raised awareness about diabetes, cancer, and any number of health issues. We too deserve to be taken into consideration, even if, at times, it seems a little over the top.

B) Whether or not you have gluten issues, educate yourself about what’s in your food and question why it’s there. Get in the habit of reading the label. What do all those different ingredients do, and what are they for? Check the ingredients, Google them if you’re curious, and pay attention to how you feel—you might find you have a different kind of food issue you didn’t even know about. This is a simple place to begin. Of course, eating fresh, non-processed food and cooking for yourself if and when you can is also wonderful on many levels.

C) Pressure corporations to remove gluten and other harmful additives from our food supply. Like diabetes, celiac disease is common and gluten sensitivity may be on the rise due to what’s in the food we are already eating. Better yet, for those who can, let’s refuse to eat these ingredients. Instead, let’s grow our own food, buy organic, learn to forage—or at least, eat fresh vegetables.

To all this, and since many readers of this blog will already be on board with the points above, I’ll add response D).

D) Let’s forge links in the food justice conversation. Celiac disease and other food intolerances are as much issues of health and food justice as becoming vegan, combating obesity, growing food locally, or building sustainable gardens. It’s about what they’re feeding the American public and how we will empower ourselves.

Blog Post: On Materialism and Materiality

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One of the things that connects my own practices—an artist, cook, gardener—is a shared emphasis physicality, on, if you will, immanence. It seems to me that we live in a world that is increasingly divorced from materials and simple physical actions. Haven’t we all become accustomed to automatic faucets, light switches, and doors, to the point where we sometimes stand motionless, waiting for them to act on our behalf? (Am I the only one who feels a slight embarrassment when I realize that this faucet is still the kind you have to turn on yourself?) I am amazed, though I shouldn’t be, at the number of people I meet who don’t have what I consider to be basic physical skills. Some real-life examples: how to grate a carrot, how to cut lines of text from a newspaper, how to sew on a button.

Beyond this strange turning-away from the simple physical actions, we live in a state of profound ignorance about our environment. I don’t only mean an understanding of our ecosystem and how it functions. I mean the natural world’s material presence. In the United States, it’s perfectly possible to go for one’s whole life without having to think about where raw materials originate, the processes they are subjected to, or where our waste goes. One of my theories about our overuse of gasoline lies in the fact that we never actually see it: the transfer from pump to gas tank is invisible, with no sense of the weight or volume of the fluid on which we so depend. We’re also sadly divorced from a sense of connection with our larger natural environments. A high-school student I tutor recently told me she didn’t know which season was which. That would be understandable if we lived in L.A., but she’s lived her whole life here in Chicago.

In the rarefied world of art school, where I spend much of my time, people do use materials and cultivate physical skills. Yet the disconnection with the environment often manifests in a resistance to anything that references the “natural.” By way of example, I am currently working on a piece that uses rawhide. The skins will be used as a projection screen, in what’s meant to be a melding of the analogue and the digital. I don’t know which is more pronounced: the fact that many of my fellow artists can’t recognize rawhide as a material, or the level of resistance from those who do. With the exception of one vegan, it is not concern for the animal’s life that is the issue. It’s the fact that the material is “primal.” I am ok with the fact I’m using skins because I’ve gone to lengths to ensure that they’re ethically-sourced. As a material for making, rawhide has a long history, and that history continues today. But connection with what is perceived as an older way of being is an embarrassment when one could (and should, these responses imply) be focusing on the world of contemporary pop culture with its concomitant irony, self-aware positioning, and consumerism—in short, with its sheer manufacturedness. Although such projects are certainly valid, one might ask why mere use and reference to “natural” materials is considered both an irrelevant cliché and a cause for aesthetic shame.

People often tell me that I am “not materialistic.” They are usually referring to my resistance to consumer culture and my propensity for holding onto objects I already have instead of buying new ones, even when those objects are, in their opinion, way past needing to be replaced. It’s true that, with a few notable exceptions, I don’t often care about acquiring new products or using objects as status symbols. Ok, I am inordinately attached to my iPhone. But I also mend my clothes, try to buy resale, and have no shame about foraging useful materials other people discard. However, this doesn’t mean I’m not materialistic. I’ve realized lately that I am—in some ways, profoundly so.

My attachment to the things I already have was recently driven home to me by life with my roommate’s dog. Suffice it to say that he has a chewing problem. Lately, he’s destroyed quite a few of my things. My distress over this doesn’t correspond to the monetary value of these objects. I realized that I am attached to a thing because of its connection to someone I care about, or my shared history with it, or its simple functionality. I love my afghan because my former partner’s mother made it for me in my favorite color; my full-length winter cloak because of the occasions on which I’ve worn it and because made it with my own hands, on my ancient-but-sturdy Singer sewing machine. Sometimes, I love an object for its sheer misfit-ness. The distorted ceramic bowls my best friend made in college are a perfect example. The glaze bubbled and burst, rendering the two bowls semi-functional, crater-covered monsters. She gave them to me as castoffs, and I love them equally for their deformity, the fact that she made them, and the beautiful color and texture of the translucent blue glaze.

When I use an object that was a gift from the maker, that person is present to me in my memory and, by extension, in my daily existence. If I take the time to examine the object, I can search out the small imperfections that give evidence of the human hand and skill that went into its making. Such is the immanent presence of attention, of skill, of love. I also have an inordinate fondness for objects that are sturdy and useful, for my widemouth jars and the kitchen scissors I use on a daily basis. We have a shared history—one of comfort and sustenance. All of these objects have a familiarity that grounds me in my otherwise overwhelming daily existence.

A friend once referred to my practice of hanging up my laundry in my pantry as “living like Little House on the Prairie.” It’s not like I churn my own butter, fashion my own doorlatches, slaughter pigs, or even chop firewood to heat my rented Chicago condo. (The condo association prohibits public laundry-hanging; apparently, it’s low-class.) I’m not a Luddite, and I won’t be taking a hammer to my MacBook anytime soon. But hanging laundry is a process that grounds me. Of course, I enjoy the knowledge that I’m saving energy, but beyond this, I find a simple calm in the action of pinning up the laundry, in the cyclical harvesting of my shirts from the line in the mornings. The agricultural way in which I think of this is process is largely unconscious but not, I think, accidental. Like gardening, laundry-hanging is a way of connecting myself to the temporal cycles and physical world around me.

In short, I’m far from the Buddhist ideal of detachment, and, for better or worse, I don’t aspire to it. If radicalism means, as etymology would have it, getting to the root, then I propose that we cultivate a radical form of gratitude to the material world and to the physical actions that allow us to participate in it. This is materialism of a different kind. It is about valuing things for their co-participation in and co-creation of our lives. To do so is to depart from Western ideas about mastery. It is to disavow dominion-theology, to begin dismantling hierarchies and distinctions between what is living and what is not. “When you begin to treat things as embodied,” a Pagan friend once said, “they begin to respond in kind.” Whether or not you agree, it’s indisputable that these philosophies of mastery-over and detachment-from have resulted in the destruction of natural environments, the pollution and human exploitation spawned by capitalism. Using handmade objects, cultivating skills, participating in simple actions—these practices are subversive. They are even, in a small way, radical.

Blog Post: On Attention

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by artist Fritz Haeg at Chicago’s Graham Foundation. Haeg’s Edible Estates project has built organic food gardens all over the world, tailoring each garden to available urban spaces with plants appropriate to the ecosystem. In his lecture, Haeg discussed his propensity for plantings that can be foraged. Foraging, he pointed out, involves special kinds of attention. A forager must be able to notice and identify useful plants, watch them until they are ready to harvest, and be able to cook or process them. There is a reassuring sense of repetition and connectedness in foraging, one that calls on us to pay attention to the seasons, the weather, the soil, the overall environment in which we watch and move.

Haeg’s brief mention of foraging got me to thinking about the connections between attending, tending, and paying attention. “I didn’t even notice that” and “Oh, I never noticed!” are phrases I seem to hear more and more frequently in my daily life. Two things strike and alarm me about these utterances. The first is the apparent lack of recognition that in order to notice, one must first pay attention. It seems like a given, but the mental activity of making-space, the cultivation of the blankness that allows us to receive and interpret impressions, is an increasingly endangered skill. But the second–even more alarming–aspect of these comments is the nonchalance with which these phrases roll off the tongue. They are said without a sense that paying attention is not only its own reward, but also a kind of personal and communal obligation. In other words, there is no sense that one should pay attention, or that failure to do so is, well, at least a little bit embarrassing.

Of course, we are all busy people. We are relentlessly ridden by advertisements, emails, soundbites, pop songs, text messages, and people trying to get us to give them money. Even my local Citgo features a TV at the pump, lest I miss an opportunity to have my ears filled with sound, or to be advertised to. The selective limiting of one’s attention is a survival skill, particularly for artists, introverts, and other shy creatures living in the city. I’m as guilty as anyone else of having a sense of attention that often either too fragmentary or simply not turned on. Attention, after all, requires time. But it seems to me that the skill of paying attention is not only something we, as a culture, are losing, but is an activity that is quickly losing cultural value. Why bother paying attention, we seem to have concluded, when technology tracks our every move and tells us all we need to know?

The answer is twofold. First, tending and paying are part of remembering, a form of connecting that is another skill Americans profoundly lack. “People from the United States can never remember anyone’s name,” a Kenyan friend of mine remarked. I hadn’t ever noticed, but it turns out to be true. Of course, in order to remember, we must first attend, that is, we must be present. By this I mean cognitively and emotionally accessible, available to participate with our environment instead of being passively entertained by it.

Lately, I’ve been reading writings by Karen Barad, a physicist, and Elizabeth Grosz, a cultural theorist. Both articulate the view that we humans are, at the very level of matter, beings who co-create our environments at every moment. In other words, we are not Cartesian beings who exist as disembodied minds inside the spacesuits of our bodies, choosing to act on or remove ourselves from the world. “Mind,” Grosz reminds us in her summary of theorist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “is always embodied” (Volatile Bodies, 86). To embrace the view Barad and Grosz articulate is to realize that we never exist apart from the materiality of our environment or from our interactions with it. When we think of our relationship to the world this way, our presence in our environment, our decisions to turn away or engage, have profound implications, whether we realize them or not.

This brings me to the second reason and most profound reason for paying tending and paying attention: it feels good. As a writer, when I want to get at the core of an idea, I often consult–what else–my trusty Oxford English Dictionary. It offers the following thoughts on the word TEND (v.). Beyond the meanings I’ve discussed here, “tend” also means “to listen,” “to move toward,” “to have a natural inclination for,” “to be drawn to in affection,” “to cultivate,” “to offer,” and finally, “to obtain.” It derives from the French word tendre, meaning “to direct one’s course toward” or “extend.” There is, in other words, a tenderness in tending. Tending involves stretching ourselves to connect with other humans and with our environment. In reaching forward–in growing–we both offer and are nourished. This set of relationships, embedded in our linguistic memory, allows us to care and be cared for. Haeg’s carefully-constructed gardens both offer and invite such alert tenderness. The powerful yet gentle force behind them is something we’d do well to remember, to pay attention to, and most importantly, to practice in our daily lives.